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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Opera Review: The Last Plank

The Met opens Robert Lepage's Götterdämmerung.
by Paul Pelkonen
Wedding interrupted. Act II of Götterdämmerung with Deborah Voigt (center) as Brunnhilde.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera unveiled the final segment of the company's new Ring Cycle last night with the house premiere of Götterdämmerung. This is the Robert Lepage production, featuring a frequently moving unit set ("The Machine") that reconfigures itself as needed to serve as a huge projection screen for digital imagery by Ex Machina, Mr. Lepage's Canadian production house.

This is not the best cast ever put onstage for Götterdämmerung. Deborah Voigt's performance had its rough moments, thanks to a dodgy middle register and a wide vibrato that threatened to degenerate in Act II. But the red-wigged diva pulled her performance out of the fire, even as she rode a giant robo-horse into the flames, singing an impressive, noble Immolation Scene.

Jay Hunter Morris continues to impress with his energetic Siegfried, although his diction still sounds a little weird at times. (Maybe it's a Texas thing.) His voice is a little small for the part, but with careful conducting from Fabio Luisi in the pit, he navigated the role's rough spots or in one case (the Act II "impossible" octave drop) avoided them altogether. 

He also managed the "baritone" scene in Act I, although his voice kept going up in pitch. Most impressive: when Siegfried was drugged, Mr. Morris acted accordingly, appearing slightly "off" and less than heroic as he he inched carefully down the Machine planks while wearing the Tarnhelm. A good first outing in this opera. The same could be said for Mr. Luisi, who replaced James Levine as the leader of this Ring late in 2011. The Met's new Principal Conductor drew rich, expressive sounds from the orchestra, but kept the long opera moving along. 

The best singer in the cast was Hans-Peter König as a bluff, bearish Hagen. The German singer brought menace to this role, hitting the big bass notes of Hagen's Watch and roaring through the Summoning of the Vassals. Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer was a revelation as Gutrune, bringing full dimension to Siegfried's second wife. Iain Paterson's bland Gunther was redeemed in the last act by a strong acting performance in the scene where Siegfried is murdered.

Mention must be made of bass-baritone Eric Owens, who is still a menacing Alberich. His short, dreamlike scene with Hagen had some of the best singing of the night, even if Mr. Owens kept inexplicably looking away from his son throughout. Waltraud Meier was potent as her namesake Waltraute, singing the part of the distressed Valkyrie with experience and panache. The chorus was strong, and looked happy to be on the stage instead of up on the Machine.

Walking the planks: Six soldiers perch on the "Machine" in Act II of Götterdämmerung.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Any Ring is a work in progress until it reaches Götterdämmerung, and it is pleasing to report that Mr. Lepage and his team made considerable headway with this opera. Gone: the "trench" acting surface that obscured actors or forced them to work from waist height. Also, the noisy set was on its best behavior last night, with a few creaks, but no clunks, thunks or jams to mar the experience.

In fact, the Machine was used cleverly in this installment, serving as a giant (deliberately) out-of-control weaving loom for the Norns, a river raft for Siegfried's Rhine Journey, and the mighty wooden ramparts of the Gibichung Hall. In the last act, the contraption was mostly a projection screen, for Lionel Arnould's digitally created rushing Rhine and a raging wall of flames in the Immolation.

Things were great until the destruction of Valhalla. Five statues of the Gods appeared, riding the stage elevator. And then with an audible "popping" sound, their heads exploded like champagne bottles. Perhaps Mr. Lepage should consult with the heavy metal band Metallica for advice on dramatic ways to destroy statues onstage--the band managed that feat nicely on their 1988 Damaged Justice tour. Now that was a conflagration worth talking about!

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